SWith no doubt between Ettore Campogalliani, in the first months at the Conservatory of Parma, and Ugo De Caro, during the very last of her American years, the name which has a prominent place among those of the voice teachers who received the task (very easy and difficult at the same time) of enriching with a suitable technique the privileged voice of Renata Tebaldi was that of Carmen Melis. She was a prima donna of the first decades of the 20th century with such a feminine charm which overshadowed her soprano qualities although the latter, educated at the legendary school of Antonio Cotogni, had deservedly introduced her in casts conducted by Toscanini, Zandonai, De Sabata, Marinuzzi….The latter, a very demanding maestro, before conducting her in 1905 in a Tosca at the Coccia Theatre of Novara, mentioned Melis in a letter: “…The prima donna is a wonderful Sardinian girl… good voice…”.
After treading the boards of the most popular Italian opera theatres (Scala, San Carlo, Costanzi in Rome), Melis won immediate plaudits also in London, Paris, the USA (from New York to San Francisco and Boston, as a frequent partner of Caruso), not to mention the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Marijnsky of the Tsars’ Saint Petersburg.
And the characters she created in first absolute performances, as designated by the composers themselves, were not few. From Ginevra in the Cena delle Beffe by Giordano, where it was absolutely necessary to appeal also to a seducing stage presence, as well as in Manon (both Massenet’s and Puccini’s ones) and, that goes without saying, in Salome and Thaïs.
The critics of that time praised her “ardent and doleful passions, …sweetness and sensibility, …spirit of poetry and reality, … intelligence and musical and psychological intuition” while Lauri Volpi wrote that she was «a captivating artist for fascination and amiability». After she retired from the scenes, Melis started her career as a voice teacher. Zandonai claimed for her at the Liceo Musicale (Conservatory) of Pesaro. It was the very first years of the 1940s and it was there that, privately, Melis heard the voice of the young Tebaldi. It was artistic love at first sight and the international Renata of the following years, with life-lasting devotion, would tell you that: “Everything I needed to learn for the stage, I learnt from her”.
To the beautiful Melis, Puccini taught the role of Minnie personally and she brought it to Boston in January 1911, immediately after the debut of the opera in New York and before Paris (1912) with Caruso. And it is from a rare picture of that period in the role of Puccini’s character, immensely loved also by the pupil Tebaldi, that such unmistakable charm is exalted.
Vincenzo Ramón Bisogni